It was Hannukah 2018 and as tradition in the Katsof home, the whole family was making wishes around the Hannukah candles. Suddenly, A.Y. Katsof’s 13 year old daughter, Naomi, began to cry.
“Why are you crying?” A.Y. asked.
“Because I made a wish that Piath and Suzy will light candles with us next year but I don’t think it will actually happen,” she whispered.
It was that Hannukah that a friend of A.Y., a Pastor from Atlanta, gave him an envelope filled with cash. After this Pastor told his congregants about A.Y. and his righteous mission to bring Ethiopian Jews back to their Homeland, a woman approached him. She handed him an envelope and said, “Please give this to A.Y. so that he can bring back more Ethiopian Jews to Israel.”
Holding that envelope in his hand, A.Y. knew that this was a sign from Above.
“No excuses now.”
About a year earlier, on one of A.Y.’s trips to Ethiopia, in 2017, he visited the Jewish community of Gondar and found 600 people praying in the morning with the traditional Talitot and Tefillin (prayer shawls and phylacteries), the same exact prayers as Jews from Israel and around the world pray every day!
“The whole community prays together three times a day. They read from the Bible and their prayers are like ours, with some parts in Amharic. At the end of each prayer they sing ‘The Nation of Israel Lives’ (‘Am Yisrael Chai’) and Israel’s national anthem, as a symbol of their longing to one day live in Israel.”
After the morning prayer, he met a teenager, named Choll. A.Y., a Major in the IDF Intelligence (Reserves), was able to communicate with him in Arabic. Choll told A.Y. all about his mother, Tuwavich, and brought him to meet her in their one room, mud hut.
Tuwavich Berko told over her painful story and begged A.Y. to help reunite her with her brothers in Israel. She explained to him that she last saw her brothers in 1984 when they were trying to cross the Sudanese desert, during Operation Moses. At that time, Israeli rescue teams had succeeded in bringing 14,000 Jews to Israel, but 4,000 had died along the way and 88 had gone missing.
Tuwavich, who was one of the 88, was thrown into jail in Sudan at age 14 and then taken as a wife by the head of the prison. She never stopped sharing her story, hoping to one day find out if her brothers indeed made it to Israel. In 2015, her brothers were found and they reached out to her, telling her to go wait in the Jewish community in Gondar.
Hearing her story, A.Y. felt compelled to help reunite her with her brothers in Israel, but quickly learnt that she also had two long lost daughters who were taken away from her and sold into marriage when they were very young.
Her oldest daughters, Piath and Suzy, were taken as brides at the age of 12, by older Sudanese men, as is the custom of the Dinka tribe. They were sold to the highest bidder, with the payment being in the amount of cows. They were abused and taken to live far away, not being allowed to have any communication with their mother.
“At that moment I realized that if I wouldn’t get involved, these Jewish women would remain in Sudan for the rest of their lives, living with poverty, disease, and violence. I thought of my own daughters. If they would be stuck somewhere dangerous, I would do anything to find someone to help them. I had landed up in a place where there was no one else – I had to be that someone. And as I firmly believe, we, Jews, don’t leave anyone behind.”
Together with AY, Choll was able to track down people from his sister’s previous village. After months of searching, he ultimately found his sister, Piath, who was living in South Sudan. Eventually, they found Suzy as well. A.Y. spoke to Suzy over the phone. Described to her as ‘the crazy white man,’ he told her that he would help get her and her family to Israel.
After months of working tirelessly to reunite the daughters with their mother, A.Y. found someone to take the sisters, at great risk, from South Sudan through Uganda and Kenya, into Ethiopia. He flew to Uganda to oversee this operation and after a long and difficult journey, they were finally able to embrace their mother in Gondar. This exciting reunion brought everyone to tears.
It was a long and difficult journey, but A.Y. succeeded in bringing them to Israel. A.Y. and his wife, Rivka, opened their home to these new immigrants and they soon became one big family. This exciting reunion, which was right around the holiday of Passover, was an overwhelming joyous occasion, but A.Y. knew his mission was not over yet. He still needed to help bring Suzy and her children to Israel.
After getting stuck with more bureaucratic issues in the airport and then getting sick with malaria, Suzy almost didn’t make it to Israel.
The Ethiopians accused her of being an illegal immigrant as she didn’t know a word of Amharic or English. And the name on her passport did not match the name on her birth certificate. After three hours of investigation in the airport, they wanted to return her to South Sudan. Thankfully, a few months earlier, A.Y. had become friends with the South Sudanese ambassador in Ethiopia and now he would call him for help once more.
The ambassador received A.Y.’s call after noon on Sunday during church, but when he realized how urgent the matter was, he immediately contacted the airport and told them to approve of Suzy’s requests.
At last, after 40 days of Israeli bureaucracy in Ethiopia and after recovering from malaria, on August 20th, Suzy and her children boarded a plane to the Homeland. Waiting there to greet them were her sister, A.Y. and his family, as well as the South Sudanese ambassador.
A.Y. helped to settle Suzy in an absorption center and enrolled her children in local Israeli schools. When he asked her what her dream was now that she was in Israel, she said it was to learn to read and write Hebrew. She is now enrolled in an ulpan where she is doing exactly that.
As a mix between Indiana Jones and Moses, A.Y. saved these women and children, brought them to Israel and reunited an entire family.
This Hannukah, A.Y. was able to make his daughter’s wish come true.
“If any of yours that are dispersed, be in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there will the LORD your G-d gather you, and…bring you into the land.” (Deuteronomy 30:4-5)
“That prophecy is what gave me the strength to overcome all the obstacles. Without that Divine promise, it would never have happened,” A.Y. remarked.
As we light the candles this year, let us all remember that the seemingly impossible can actually come true, the small army can defeat the larger one, the small jar of oil can last for many days and miracles can happen.
[Stay tuned for A.Y.’s complete story of this incredible rescue mission. The book is currently being edited and we will update you as soon as it is published.]